The House In London Road: 1.6

Alison and Andrea were exactly the same ages as me and my brother, seven and nine. They arrived in the evening tense and tearful, and quickly went to bed.

Early the next morning we disobeyed my parents’ instructions and went into Alison and Andrea’s room where they had the bunk beds, and started interrogating them. It seemed that they lived somewhere in London that we had never heard of, but they could not explain why they were with us. Shortly afterwards we decided to take them on a tour of the premises, still in their nightclothes. We skipped the upstairs where my parents were drinking tea in their room. We made short work of the cupboard under the stairs where the telephone was kept together with some dusty bottles of gin and Advocat and a beautiful pair of fawn leather riding boots that my father had had made bespoke in Bombay during the war and which had never been worn.

We briefly covered the dining room with its glass cabinets of coloured Venetian wine glasses, or rather the few remaining glasses as I had broken most of them by shaking the cabinet – it was miraculously easy to rock it from side to side. The dining room also contained the rented television with its valves and sweet smell of burning dust when turned on.

In the living room was a coal-burning stove in the fireplace, enamelled in a milky blue the colour of a renaissance sky. There was also a gas poker that shot fascinating tongues of flame from holes punched along its length. Above the fireplace there was an oblong reproduction of an Ivan Hitchens woodland scene in Hitchens’ semi-abstract style, which looked like an open door to another world. I thought the Wood Between The Worlds in the Narnia books must look something like that. The living room was also where my father had his library of works that were mainly serious-popular staples of the twenties and thirties – HG Wells, James Jeans, Aldous Huxley. We showed Alison and Andrea how the sofa could be used as a trampoline when the cushions were removed, and how hard you could hit the keys of the upright piano. We demonstrated the Pye record player, and the 4-LP recording of Wind In The Willows.

The kitchen was the best room for us. The oven had numerous switches and knobs that could be turned, and lights that came on, and there was also the starting button of the dishwasher, and a radio that mainly emitted static. Then we toured the garden, despite the April cold. We demonstrated the swing, and the climbing frame, and the can of paraffin in the tool shed that could be used to start bonfires.

The visit of Alison and Andrea was a high point of this phase of childhood. We had no previous experience of girls our own age. I had never had anything approaching a friendship with a girl. This visit felt something like warm and scented air moving in from an adjacent but unknown territory. Alison and Andrea were like two female archetypes: Alison was tall and fearless and easy to lead; Andrea was slight and submissive and determined. 

We walked with the girls along the beachfront Esplanade. On Sunday we were taken to a village pub out beyond Southend Airport, and had bottles of cherryade in the garden. On another day we walked in Belfairs woods and had ditch-jumping competitions.

For a couple of days the weather was freakishly warm. It was still only April, but the sun was hot before breakfast. We took our swimming clothes and towels in a rucksack and walked down to The Ridgeway and crossed over the railway line on the footbridge. We went down the metalled steps, past the five-foot-high graffiti on the station wall that announced “WHEN THE MODE OF THE MUSIC CHANGES THE WALLS OF THE CITY SHAKE” and on to the Esplanade.

Inexplicably my brother and I had always been allowed on the Esplanade alone, even though neither of us was yet ten. We were allowed to walk all the way to Southend Pier if we wanted, and to hang about the amusements or take the train that went to the end of the pier if we happened to have two pence each for the tickets. This was an old London tube train with three carriages and automatic sliding doors, and between the rails you could see the waves below.

We were allowed to go into Peter Pan’s Playground at the entrance to the pier. There was a Crooked House that cost three pence to go into, but it was just a gimcrack shed with narrow winding stairs and floors that were not level. The Golden Hinde was better value. It was also three pence but this half-sized replica of Sir Francis Drake’s flagship had several borderline pornographic displays including a tableau of foreign-looking people being tortured by thumbscrews and hot pincers and massive metal weights. There was also a go-kart track run by gypsy teenagers, but the go-karts cost two shillings for a couple of minutes. We could only watch.

But this day was not a day for Peter Pan’s Playground. We were ready to swim in the cold waters of the estuary.

At this point the Thames Estuary was miles wide – sometimes you could see Kent on the far side. At low tide the water would recede for a quarter of a mile or more, revealing an alternative world of mudflats and creeks. In places the mud was hard and stony. Most of it was soft, grey on the surface but blue-black the moment your boot sank into the mud.

We would walk on to the mudflats close to the Crowstone, a granite obelisk of Egyptian form set in the seabed a few hundred yards offshore. The Crowstone marked the sea road, a path of hard gravel bordered by timbers staked deep into the mud that was only revealed as the water withdrew.

Half a mile out the sea road ended at the edge of a mud creek where the seawater poured out into the distant estuary as the tide fell. We knew about the tides, and how you had to time everything to the turn. You could cross the creek at the end of the sea road when the time was right. The current pulled at your legs, but on a falling tide the water was only a couple of feet deep.

We waded in. Alison and Andrea just followed us. They assumed that we knew what we were doing. We crossed the creek.

On the far side of the creek there was another trek across mud and stones, and then we reached the shallow waters of the estuary, where you had to walk for yards before the water was deep enough to swim. A little way out the water became deeper.

The water was cold. It was so cold that when we came out of the water we were moving like a film slowed down. We only had brought two towels between the four of us. I gave my towel to Alison who I had decided I loved the most.

By the time we got back to the creek it looked wider than usual. The tide had turned and the water was pouring back into the estuary.

“Can’t we walk around it?” asked Alison, looking up the estuary. I explained that that the creek went on upstream for miles. The others were not keen and said we should just wait but I knew there was nothing to wait for except water. I took the rucksack and held it above my head and waded in. It was not that far to the other side, but the water was deeper than I expected. It came up close to Andrea’s shoulders. When we reached the far side everyone was shivering and cross and frightened.

“Now we have to run,” I said.

“Oh no.”

“Yes. Come on. Run.”

So we ran, a ragged band of children on the sea road running towards the Crowstone and the dry shoreline beyond. The incoming tide on the shallow mudflats could move at astonishing speed. If you left it too late then running would not be enough, not even for an adult. So we ran, until we reached the Crowstone which seemed like safety.

I looked back, and in fact the incoming sea seemed quite a distance away. We walked the last yards from the Crowstone to the shore, and then up the beach to the Esplanade.

This felt good. I felt that I had led our party across a wilderness and into safety. I felt I had done my duty, although there was disappointment that this was not recognised by the others. We sat for a while in the beach shelter by the miniature golf course, and tried to get warmer. The unusual hot weather had receded as fast as the tide had come in.

“Can we go home now?” asked Andrea.

I don’t know how long Alison and Andrea stayed with us; in memory it seems like many weeks, perhaps months, although an entry in my father’s pocket diary for that year says that they arrived on 7 April 1966 with a plan to stay for two weeks. Perhaps it was only two weeks.

When the time was up I went with my mother in the car to take them back home. My mother had already hinted that something negative was happening in their life that had meant they had to come and stay with us for a while, although I had no idea what that something was.

Their flat was in a street of tall Edwardian terraces. The girls’ mother was waiting, and took us down to the kitchen on the basement floor which seemed to me to be a strange place to have a kitchen. The kitchen was warm and smelled of unusual foods and spices.

Their mother seemed tired. She reached back to a basket on the windowsill and brought out a wristwatch which she gave to Alison. “I had it mended for you,” she said.

We never saw them again. We never learned their story or how my parents knew them. Decades later when I asked my mother who they were she had no memory of the visit.

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